Leah Libresco, Media’s Favorite Puzzle

When Leah Libresco informed me that she was entering an RCIA program and wanted to know how to move her blog over here to the Catholic portal, she said she thought there might a some reaction to her conversion, but not enough to take up a whole day, so her main plan was to “sit on the porch and eat ice cream.”

I’m thinking the vanilla swirl has melted and congealed in the bowl, by now.

Being busy with travel and a conference since last Wednesday, I’ve been a mostly-passive observer of the brouhaha that has attended Leah’s announcement. I noticed someone on twitter wondering, “who is Leah Libresco and why is MSNBC reporting that she is converting?”

One might just as well ask, why is CNN interviewing her of a Sunday morning, about her conversion? Or why the subject now brings up some 32,000 hits on a Google search; or why her announcement post — that one post alone — has garnered 150,000 viewings; or why The Blaze covered the story with a pretty good interview.

Via those Google hits, I’ve come across a number of blogposts or op-eds from atheist sources, Some are philosophical about it; some are annoyed about the conversion, or the coverage, or both, and wondering why the press is so interested in a young woman moving from atheist to believer, but less interested when a believer stops believing.

In fact, I’m pretty sure the press would be plenty interested if a Catholic of any sort of prominence suddenly declared for atheism. Look at the interest they show in Catholics who merely argue with the church; if one were to walk away — not just from the church but from the life of faith, completely — the coverage would be immense. When Anne Rice announced that she was “quitting Christianity”, after all, the press was fascinated.

Why so much coverage on Leah? Perhaps the answer is this: Leah’s conversion goes against all of the prevailing narratives that dominate secularist thinking. Religion — or at least religion that goes beyond affirming oneself and actually costs something of one — is the “opiate of the masses” suited only to “bitter clingers” and intellectually-dim peasants (except it isn’t and never was). Leah is a brainy, sophisticated Yalie who is neither bitter, clingy nor dim.

Catholicism “hates women” (except it doesn’t and never did). Leah is a strongly self-possessed, forward-thinking woman.

Catholicism “hates homosexual persons” (except it doesn’t and never has although a new apostolic letter might help make that clear) and Leah identifies as bi-sexual.

Wait a second…hold on, I think I’ve got it! Really smart…female…bi-sexual-identifying. Holy smokes! Leah Libresco has pulled off a narrative-busting Trifecta! She’s a secularist thoroughbred who has nevertheless won the Triple Crown of Cultural Incongruity!

No wonder the press is so interested in Leah Libresco. What a thoroughly odd puzzle she must be, to them. And if she had to become a Christian, why not at least an Episcopalian, which is and always has been, the acceptable church of the elite? Why must she mess with narratives and perceptions like some kind of Plato-mystic canoodler?

On a serious note, though: Someone asked me a few days ago whether it bothered me that Leah is determined to ask questions of the church and its teachings, and I said, “no; she’s not the first to ask, and she won’t be the last.” We have a long history of brilliant people — atheists and non — who have trained their big brains on Catholicism, intending to either disprove it or simply to splash about in its currents, only to find themselves drawn further in. Catholic teaching has been thoroughly reasoned and laboriously fleshed-out; there is actual thinking, full of nuance and complexity, at its core — where Faith and Reason share a kinship, within which the natural and supernatural wave back and forth, like wind-stirred wheat in a field; it’s a dance of organic wholeness.

There is that famous, and lately perhaps overused, quote by Fulton Sheen: “There are not 100 people who hate the Catholic Church; But there are millions who hate what they believe the Catholic Church to be.” There is a great deal of truth in that, which is perhaps why the quote is overused. I’ve never known anyone to pursue an exploration of the church with an open mind, and continue to hate her, and Leah’s mind appears to be wide-open and hate-free, to begin with.

I’m not bothered that she may bring questions with her, because I take my cue from the Holy Father, who has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to entertain any-and-all topics. Benedict believes — and I have discovered it in my own faith journey — that submitting any question to reason, and tackling it with patient but rigorous intellectual honesty leads one (sometimes with great reluctance and gritted teeth) to the side of Catholic orthodoxy.

What I often think of the church is that her depths allow the exploration and collection of the very sweetest mysteries; hauling them up and breaking them into the conscious mind is like finding the perfect pearl, over and over again.

I really hope that becomes true for Leah, too.

Rod Dreher and Pat Archbold are concerned about what Leah may encounter in the comboxes, and urge her to talk less, blog less, and explore and pray more. It’s good advice. On the other hand, as Kyle Cupp says, conversion is a daily re-beginning for all of us and therefore “I know that I’d blog a conversion process because I already do.”

Wesley J. Smith, meanwhile (yes, everyone really is covering this) appreciates meme-busting.

Joanne McPortland, bless her honest heart, admits to being just a tad envious of Leah:

I’m happy for Leah, especially happy for her conversion, but damn, I envy her: her smarts, her looks, her youth, her particular DrWho-steampunk-bisexual-mathgeek brand of coolness. I envy her the incomparable joys of being in the first blush of romance with Rome. . . and her pageviews. Oh, yes, I envy those numbers.

UPDATE I:
Leah, who — as advertised, has boundless energy for debate — addresses yet another question, this time about her ability to be a Christian and a skeptic.

On that note, she should take heart from Max Lindenman, perhaps, who has managed to convert — questions and all – and still bring a gimlet eye to bear on things. Last night he did a very impressive job of “taking the high road” in giving instruction to the NY Time’s Bill Keller. Well done, Max!

UPDATE II:
Jennifer Fulwiler,
who has made that trip from atheism to Catholicism, herself, shares her thoughts.

Fr. Dwight: Reductionism, Ridicule and Red Herrings

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  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    So then the question is why Eve Tushnet ISN’T being talked up by DaMedia.

    [The NYT did a feature on Eve in 2010 -admin]

  • John Smith

    Atheists think the news doesn’t report on people deconverting from Christianity? On June 13th CNN did a story about ministers who leave the ministry to become atheists. I’d rather not try posting a link in the comments section but anyone can go to CNN.com and search on Jerry DeWitt.

  • nico

    I look forward to celebrating the ‘genius of the feminine’ and the full equality of women with you and the rest of the Catholic church, on the installation of the next female pope.

    [Equal things are strictly the same? Only in a make-believe world. The world sees the position of pope as one of power and says "women should have that, too". The office is nothing but burden and service. No one in their right minds would want it for anyone. -admin]

  • Bertha

    Wow, the CNN interview is powerful stuff. Leah goes right from her atheism to the expression of her joy of the Mass and Eucharist. Source and summit of the faith!!

  • David Ferguson

    Tragically, atheists will be arguing about this from hell.

    From the story of Lazarus: “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” Luke 16:31

  • http://www.lisajuliaphotography.com lisajulia

    THIS: “We have a long history of brilliant people — atheists and non — who have trained their big brains on Catholicism, intending to either disprove it or simply to splash about in its currents, only to find themselves drawn further in. Catholic teaching has been thoroughly reasoned and laboriously fleshed-out; there is actual thinking, full of nuance and complexity, at its core — where Faith and Reason share a kinship, within which the natural and supernatural wave back and forth, like wind-stirred wheat in a field; it’s a dance of organic wholeness.”

  • dry valleys

    Personally I’m more impressed by Hemant Mehta’s retort (also on Patheos), have you read that?

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/06/25/why-all-the-fascination-with-the-atheist-turned-catholic-blogger/

  • Oregon Catholic

    It’s not hard to see why Leah could go from atheist to Catholic. Unlike so many atheists who make religion bashing their only form of discourse, she obviously has an open mind and a heart that isn’t filled with hate. Welcome Leah.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I, myself, have wondered about the ongoing fascination with Leah Libresco, from both sides of the blogsphere.

    I wish her luck, and hope she perseveres in her Christian pilgrimage.

  • http://medpedia.com/users/110 Larry Weisenthal

    This is a thoughtful, well-written blog post, but I think it does miss the point of a single issue. You ask the question: “why the press is so interested in a young woman moving from atheist to believer, but less interested when a believer stops believing.”

    This is the old man bites dog phenomenon. It’s seldom news when a believer stops believing. Look at just about any statistic you wish — percentage of Catholics confessing before receiving the eucharist; percentage of Catholics regularly attending mass; average number of children in Catholic families. All of these are metrics which are obvious indices of loss of faith.

    People, however, seldom issue press releases or write blog posts over the loss of faith. There are many reasons for this. Many are cultural Catholics, without being religious Catholics — analogous to Jews, in this regard. They don’t want to separate themselves from the culture. Then there is the family issue — not wishing to cause personal anguish in the minds of parents, siblings, spouses, and other loved ones. So reverse conversions (loss of faith) are more likely to be entirely private events than the converse.

    A person losing faith is simply not a compelling news line. An erstwhile atheist coming to faith — particularly in today’s culture — is a much more compelling story. “What made you do it?” People want to know. In contrast, no one is really interested in learning the details of why one lost faith. This is the much more typical dog bites man story.

    - Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

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  • Gloria Enoch, ofs

    Yes I too had some of those questionsd about Leah. Of course, many athiests become Catholic because they find athiesism to be without purpose and Catholicism is more rich and intillectual than other choices. I think of C. S. Lewis and Thomas Mertin just to name two. I don’t mind the advertisement for us though but I will not accept her as any kind of Catholic Voice until she has paid her dues as it were. I don’t think I care to hear from her on Faith issues and or wider views as A CATHOLIC not yet anyway. Oh well we will all pray for her as we do for others and Pax et Bonum.

  • Alan

    bisexual? does that mean she has sex on a bike or with a bike?

  • http://medp Larry Weisenthal

    Regarding Leah, Gloria writes:

    “I don’t think I care to hear from her on Faith issues and or wider views as A CATHOLIC not yet anyway.”

    Peter as apostle to the Jews. Paul was apostle to the Gentiles. The Anchoress is apostle to the catechized True in Faith. Leah has the street cred to be apostle to the agnostics, perhaps.

    Different groups of people derive benefit from different apostles.

    - Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

  • Corita

    The part I dread is –and I see it as inevitable, hopefully I am wrong– the second and third waves of Catholics interested in her conversion which will bring an avalanch of judgementalism and theological assault on her because she identifies as bisexual. It already is cropping up, even here. Poor woman, to convert so publically, to be seized upon by the ravenous media. I am praying that the Catholic Internet Society of Fraternal Correction does not try to tear her up.

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  • Corita

    Oh, also, don’t forget that she is cute. Very cute, in fact, which makes her more likely to get stuck on tv and obsessed over.


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